By Jonathan Blumhofer
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin’s pairing of Beethoven with Knecht is intelligent, programmatically and musically; Jakub Hrůša’s recording of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is special, for all the right reasons, but Thierry Fischer’s Symphony fantastique is a disappointing misfire.
The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth later this year might be the most-overplayed hand in classical music since, well, either the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000 or that of Mozart’s birth in 2006. Either way, if we don’t really need new recorded cycles of the piano sonatas, concertos, and symphonies, it’s more than welcome when a striking new pairing of something by Beethoven and one of his contemporaries comes out.
Such is the case with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin’s new combination of the “Pastorale” Symphony with Justin Heinrich Knecht’s Le Portrait musical de la Nature ou Grande Simphonie.
Granted, Knecht’s 1784-85 anticipation of the “Pastorale” isn’t quite so compelling or enduring as Beethoven’s later masterpiece. But it’s perfectly ingratiating on its own.
The first of its five movements depicts a shining sun, gently blowing breezes, chirping birds, and the like. In the second, clouds gather and, for the third, a thunderstorm appears. The latter dissipates in the fourth, which leads to a return to the bucolic scenes of the opening; eventually they fade into the ether.
In the present performance, Bernhard Forck leads the Akademie in a flowing, regal account of Knecht’s score. The outer movements are thoroughly graceful and richly weighted – and filled with ear-catching harmonic turns, to boot. The stormy, central ones are rigorously shaped, dynamically, and articulated with biting energy.
Their take on Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony (no. 6) doesn’t lack for spirit, either. The first movement is taut and lively; the second floats innocently. In the third, the skewered mid-movement rhythmic patterns dance gamely while the storm is marked by clean textures and subtle dynamic shadings. The finale flows with winning naturalness.
Throughout both pieces, tempos are never slack – Forck keeps things moving at an admirable clip – and the ensemble brings to life each work’s characteristic gestures (warbling bird calls, stormy scenes, bucolic hymns of thanksgiving) with aplomb.
To be sure: these are wonderful performances, expressively and technically, and the pairing of Beethoven with Knecht is intelligent, programmatically and musically. In a year already awash in rerecordings of all things Beethoven, this is, then, a release to treasure.
Like the above, Jakub Hrůša’s new recording of Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) is a special one – and for all the right reasons.
One of them is that the conductor provides a commanding view of the work’s overriding structure: he never gets lost in its thickets but, at the same time, manages to elucidate many of the piece’s subtle orchestrational details.
Its big first movement, for instance, is mighty and lucid, the crowning synthesis of Asrael’s “fate theme” with the opening motto from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony coming across with terrific balance and power. The spare second offers a potent textural contrast, while the tonal blend across the ensemble and rhythmic energy of the third are thoroughly captivating.
At the same time, Hrůša and his band are completely simpatico with Asrael’s turbulent emotional landscape. Essentially a meditation on the Islamic angel of death, the piece is informed by the demises of both Suk’s wife and his father-in-law (Antonin Dvorak).
Its initial part (consisting of the first three movements) offers robust alternations between explosive and inward gestures – all etched stirringly here. In the second (the last two movements), the mood changes somewhat: there’s a sensuous, soaring Adagio that here provides a welcome sense of respite.
The stormy finale, on the other hand, works its way to a triumphantly subdued C-major cadence – though that arrival is never guaranteed. In the present performance, Hrůša makes much of Suk’s menacing brass writing, as well as Asrael’s harmonic ambiguity, all of which culminates in a serenely cathartic coda.
Indeed, I’ve had my issues with several of Hrůša’s previous releases; this one, though, checks all the boxes. On top of those, the engineering is excellent. For Suk fans, particularly, and 20th-century symphonic enthusiasts, more generally, this is a great release.
At best, let’s just say that Thierry Fischer’s new recording of Hector Berlioz’s Symphony fantastique is maddeningly inconsistent. Not in terms of orchestral performance: the Utah Symphony plays like the finely oiled machine it is, and does, one suspects, everything the conductor asks of it. It’s just that his requests in the piece don’t always add up.
So, on the one hand, there’s a surprisingly limpid and flat (if impressively clean-textured) account of the first movement’s introduction (“Visions”). On the other, its main body (“Passions”) offers a satisfying sense of direction, energy, and tension.
A graceful, lilting “Un bal” (highlighted by some gloriously resonant harp playing) is counterbalanced by a “March to the Scaffold” that proves a stultifying slog – one made even more frustrating by Fischer opting to take the (narratively illogical) repeat of the exposition.
Mirroring the first movement, Fischer’s “Witches’ Sabbath” alternates a tepid, literal opening section (though the bassoon playing beneath the E-flat clarinet solo is spot-on) and flaccid, terror-less take on the “Dies irae” chant with a smart, snapping take on the round dance. Why couldn’t the whole performance have been like the latter? Good question.
Interpretively, the best thing about this Fantastique is the “Scène aux champs,” which is rhythmically strict and captures much of the music’s sense of space and atmosphere. At the same time, Fischer’s reading doesn’t match the emotional heat found in Bernstein’s or Tilson Thomas’s (or François-Xavier Roth’s) accounts of this piece. A pity, this Symphonie fantastique, then.
Happily, the album’s filler, comes off rather better. Granted, it’s not expansive, but neither are the selections unduly slight.
Philippe Quint is the radiant soloist in Berlioz’s lovely Rêverie et caprice. The Utah Symphony Chorus and University of Utah Chamber Chorus provide lush, fluent accounts of La mort d’Ophélie and Sara la beigneuse. Perhaps the ensembles’ next Berlioz album could showcase similarly obscure fare: these latter works seemed to better draw out Fischer’s conducting strengths.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.